Ukhurhẹ – ancestors, archives, interventions

Ukhure carvings commissioned by Northcote Thomas in University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
A selection of ukhurhẹ ancestral staffs collected by Northcote Thomas in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Photograph by George Agbo.

The painstaking archival and collections-based research made possible through the Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project enables us to make novel connections between objects, images, texts and sounds, and opens up new avenues of understanding. Working with the material legacies of Northcote Thomas‘s anthropological surveys in West Africa provides insight into cultural practices of the past, challenges assumptions about colonial collecting, and presents possibilities for creativity and collaboration in the present.

When we first examined a remarkable assemblage of 39 carved wooden ukhurhẹ staffs in the Northcote Thomas Collection at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in 2018, we were immediately struck by the freshness of their appearance. As far as we know, they have never been on public display and they had the appearance of coming straight from the carver’s workshop – despite being at least 110 years old.

Brian Heyer provides a succinct summary of such ‘rattle-staffs’ in Kathy Curnow’s book Iyare! Splendor & Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre. He writes,

When an Ẹdo man dies it is his eldest son’s duty to commission an ukhurhẹ in his honor. He then places it on the family altar as the only essential ritual object there. An ukhurhẹ consists of a wooden staff divided into segments designed to resemble the ukhurhẹ-oho, a bamboo-like plant that grows wild near Benin City. Each segment represents a single lifespan, and linked they are a visual symbol of ancestry and continuity. Their mass numbers on altars stress the importance of the group over the individual.

The top segment of the ukhurhẹ is hollowed by slits, a wooden piece remaining within. This acts as a rattle when the staff is stamped on the ground, a sound said to call the ancestors.

Ukhurhẹ topped by heads are standard for commoners and chiefs. Royal family members’ examples end in hands or hands holding mudfish. Only the Oba’s ukhurhẹ can be made from brass or ivory, though even most of the royal staffs are usually wooden, made by the members of the Igbesanmwan royal carving guild.

Northcote Thomas encountered these ukhurhẹ staffs during his 1909-10 anthropological survey of the Edo people of Southern Nigeria. They were – and, indeed, still are – an important part of the ancestral altars located in chiefly families’ palaces and compounds. Thomas photographed a number of such altars in Benin City itself and in the wider region. In Uzebba, for instance, Thomas noted that ukhurhẹ (which he spelled uxure or uchure) were known as ikuta, but fulfilled a similar memorial function – presencing the ancestors.

Northcote Thomas photographs of ukhure on ancestral altars, Benin City, 1909
Left: Ikuta at ancestral shrine in Uzebba, 1909 (NWT 546, RAI 400.15687); Right: Ukhurhẹ propped against the back wall of Chief Ezomo’s ancestral altar, Benin City, 1909 (NWT 160, RAI 400.17962). Photographs by Northcote Thomas, courtesy Royal Anthropological Institute.

In his Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, published in 1910, Thomas explains that these staves – also widely known as rattle-staffs – represent particular male ancestors. They are placed on the family altar after the death of the family head, once he has transitioned into the status of an ancestor. The ukhurhẹ is a manifestation of the ancestor’s spirit, and the family make sacrifices to the ukhurhẹ to honour and seek the intercession of their departed kin. Over the generations the staffs accumulate, alongside other altar objects such as ivory tusks, memorial heads, bells and stone celts.

Excerpt from Northcote Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Southern Nigeria, 1910
Excerpt from Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria (London, 1910), describing the uchure (ukhurhẹ).

In unpublished notes, Thomas describes the practices surround the ukhure in greater detail. He describes, for example, Chief Ero‘s yearly sacrifice to his ancestors in which the blood of sacrificed cows, goats and fowl was smeared on the staffs. He describes how the ukhurhẹ propped against the wall at the ‘shrine of the father’ in Chief Ezomo‘s compound were stained dark brown due to these ‘repeated outpourings of blood’. He also reports that Ero could only give the names of two of the ancestors represented by the staffs, suggesting that the massed staffs come to represent the ancestors in a more collective sense.

In addition to the rattle-staffs found on ancestral altars, Thomas also documents the use of larger, more elaborately carved ukhurhẹ of community cults associated with various divinities. In October 1909, Thomas spent several days observing the festival of the Ovia cult in the town of Iyowa, a few miles north of Benin City. He documented the ceremonies, songs and dances in great detail. (This will be the subject of a future article). The ukhurhẹ of Ovia plays a central part in the festival as a manifestation of the deity itself. The figure on the top of the ukhurhẹ has the same form as the Ovia masquerade, which carries it.

Northcote Thomas's photographs of Ovia Festival, Iyowa, 1909
Left: Ovia masquerade holding the ukhurhẹ (NWT 1276, MAA P.29433); Middle: boys holding Ovia ukhurhẹ staffs for Thomas to photographs, note that the carved figure at the top of each staff has the form of the Ovia masquerade (NWT 1253, RAI 400.18358); Right: Cowries are offered to Ovia on the second day of the festival (NWT 1267, RAI 400.18370). Photographs by Northcote Thomas, courtesy Royal Anthropological Institute and University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology.
Northcote Thomas's typescript notes on the Ovia Festival, Iyowa, 1909
Pages from Northcote Thomas’s unpublished typescript notes about the Ovia Festival, including description of the use of ukhurhẹ. Click image to enlarge.

Forty-four years after Northcote Thomas documented the Ovia Festival at Iyowa, another anthropologist – R. E. Bradbury – made a study of the same festival at Ehor, another village on the northern outskirts of Benin City. Bradbury writes that the ukhurhẹ ‘are the real symbols of Ovia’; ‘they are about four and a half feet high, carved with representations of the Ovia masquerades. They, more than anything else, are identified with Ovia herself who is sometimes said to enter them when she is called upon by the priests’.

Representations of Ovia on ukhure
Left: Detail of two of the Ovia ukhurhẹ photographed by Northcote Thomas in Iyowa (NWT 1253, RAI 400.18358); Right: Detail of Ovia ukhurhẹ collected by Northcote Thomas in Benin City in 1909 (NWT 296, MAA Z 20328). The carved figure has the same form as the Ovia masquerade, with its network headdress surmounted with parrot feather plumes, and crossed sticks beaten during the Ovia dances.

In The Art of Benin, art historian Paula Girschick Ben-Amos explains that the ukhurhẹ of these ‘hero deities’ are ‘different from the more commonly seen ancestral staffs, as they are much thicker and have the figure of a priest or other objects specific to the cult as a finial’. ‘The rattle staff,’ she writes, ‘is both a means of communication with the spirit world, achieved when the staff is struck upon the ground, and a staff of authority, to be wielded only by properly designated persons’.

It is interesting to note that Thomas did not collect any ukhurhẹ that had actually been used in rituals either on ancestral altars or in cult ceremonies. And this brings us back to our initial impressions of the assemblage of ukhurhẹ we encountered in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores in 2018.

Ukhure carvings commissioned by Northcote Thomas in University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
A selection of ukhure ancestral staffs collected by Northcote Thomas in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Prior to our examination of the staves we had found an intriguing exchange of letters between Northcote Thomas and Charles Hercules Read, who, in 1909, was Keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum. The letters show that Thomas was under the impression that Read had agreed to acquire the collections he had been gathering during his survey, reimbursing his initial outlay in purchasing them. It is clear, however, that Read was not interested in the kinds of ‘ethnographical specimens’ that Thomas was collecting. Writing from Benin City in July 1909, Thomas explained, for example, that ‘I have ordered all the “jujus” of Benin City to be carved, probable cost £25’. Read replied in August that ‘I am by no means sure that I want these modern things made to order as it were, unless they serve some definite and immediate purpose’.

Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and C. H. Read of the British Museum, 1909
Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and C. H. Read of the British Museum, 14 July 1909 and 20 August 1909. British Museum original correspondence. Click image to enlarge.

Given the freshness of the carvings, we suspected that the carved ‘jujus’ Thomas refers to in this letter were the ukhurhẹ staffs, each surmounted with a figure representing a different deity or ebo. Confirmation of this came, by chance, a couple of years later, when we found a further reference to the carvings in correspondence between Thomas and the German anthropologist Bernhard Struck, curator at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden. Thomas and Struck maintained a professional correspondence over many years and, in a 1924 letter sent from his home near Oswestry, Thomas provides detailed corrections and comments on an scholarly article Struck was evidently working on. In a digression, Thomas notes that ‘There are 30-40 ebo; I have commissioned [herstellen lassen] the uxure from Eholo nigbesawa. They are in Cambridge’.

Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and Bernhard Struck
Excerpts from a letter from Northcote Thomas to Bernhard Struck, 6 August 1924. Thomas was a fluent German speaker/writer. In the letter Thomas comments on the manuscript of an article Struck is writing; this seems to correspond with Struck’s essay ‘Chronologie der Benin-Altertümer’ [Chronology of Benin Antiquities], but this was published in the journal Zeitschrift für Ethnologie in 1923.

Elsewhere in the same letter, Thomas explains that ‘Eholo nigbesawa’ means Eholo the woodworker [Holzarbeiter]. In fact, however, Eholo is the title given to the head of the wood and ivory carvers’ guild, the Igbesanmwan – and the name/title should be Eholo N’Igbesamwan. It seems, therefore, that Thomas commissioned the ukhurhẹ from Eholo N’Igbesamwan and they were either carved by him personally or by other members of the guild. According to the Historical UK inflation rate calculator, the estimated cost of £25 corresponds to approximately £2850 today, so this would have been a significant and lucrative commission.

The story of how the ukhurhẹ were obtained is important, not least since it challenges stereotypical assumptions that colonial-era collectors such as Thomas either looted objects from sacred sites or else exploited local craftspeople by paying paltry sums for their work.

Whereas Read saw little value or purpose in these ‘modern things made to order’, it appears that, for Thomas, this was an opportunity to assemble what he perceived as a complete set of representations of Edo deities in a traditional form. While many of these deities are associated with identifiable symbols or regalia, such as that of Ovia, Thomas may have been projecting his own assumptions about the distinct visual representation of each ebo when he commissioned them to be carved in this way. Perhaps the carvers even encouraged him in this belief! In the labels attached to each ukhurhẹ and in the corresponding catalogue of collections, each is given its name.

Excerpt from catalogue of objects collected by Northcote Thomas in Southern Nigeria, 1909-10
Above: Pages from the collections catalogue from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 tour, listing the names of the various ebo represented on the ukhurhẹ staffs; Below: Carved figures on the tops of the ukhurhẹ commissioned by Thomas, corresponding to the list above. Click images to enlarge.

Carvers still produce ukhurhẹ in Benin City today, and many families still maintain traditional ancestral altars in their compounds.

Ukhure for sale in carvers' shops in Benin City
Ukhurhẹ for sale in carvers’ shops in Benin City today. Left, the shop of William Edosomwan, Igun Street; Right, Emma O. Carving Depot, Igbesanmwan Street. Photographs by Paul Basu.
Ukhure on ancestral altar at Ezomo's Palace, Benin City
Chief Ezomo, James Okponmwense, shows us the ancestral shrine at his Palace. None of the ukhurhẹ are of particular antiquity. He explained that most of the shrine objects were sold or stolen in the 1980s. Photograph by Paul Basu.

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we commissioned an ukhurhẹ to be made as a memorial to Northcote Thomas himself. We worked with traditional carver Felix Ekhator, who has a workshop on Sokponba Road, Benin City, just opposite the famous Igun Street. Felix’s first calling was as a professional wrestler, but in the late 1970s he followed in his father’s footsteps and focused on woodworking as a career. He made our ukhurhẹ in the traditional way from the wood of a kola tree, which is hard and durable. At its top Felix carved the figure of Northcote Thomas, copying his posture and clothing from a photograph taken on his 1909-10 tour.

Felix Ekhator carving new commission of ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Above and below: Felix Ekhator working on the Northcote Thomas ukhurhẹ in his workshop off Sokponba Road, Benin City. Photographs by George Agbo.
Felix Ekhator carving new commission of ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Felix Ekhator and the finished ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Felix Ekhator with the finished Northcote Thomas ukhurhẹ. Photograph by Paul Basu.

The finished ukhurhẹ will be displayed alongside a selection of those commissioned by Thomas 110 years previously in Benin City at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition scheduled to open at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in April 2021. Our intention is to use contemporary artworks, such as Felix Ekhator’s ukhurhẹ, as interventions, disrupting conventional expectations of what an ‘ethnographic’ or ‘historical’ display should be, and provoking further questions. Should, for example, we honour Northcote Thomas, the colonial-era anthropologist, as an ancestor? Should we introduce his presence, his agency, alongside the cultural artefacts that he caused to be produced?

Mock up of [Re:]Entanglements exhibition display of ukhure collected by Northcote Thomas
Initial mock-up of the planned display of ukhurhẹ at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition. Felix Ekhator’s contemporary ukhure disrupts our reading of the historical ‘specimens’ commissioned by Thomas. Visualisation by Paul Basu.

We gratefully acknowledge a small grant from the Crowther-Beynon Fund that enabled us to commission the new ukhurhẹ from Felix Ekhator.

Giving objects a voice: conservation and the N. W. Thomas collection

UCL Conservation student conducting visual inspect of headdress collected by N. W. Thomas for condition report
UCL students conducting an inspection of objects from the N. W. Thomas collection at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology prior to their transfer to the UCL Conservation Lab. Photograph: George Agbo.

Among the many collaborations involved in the [Re:]Entanglements project is a partnership with the Museum Conservation programme at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology. Under the supervision of Drs Dean Sully and Carmen Vida, students on the graduate programme have been working on a selection of objects collected by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys of Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Project coordinator, Carmen Vida, introduces some of the contributions of conservation in this the first in a series of posts from the UCL Conservation team.

Starting in February 2019, as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, a selection of objects belonging to the N. W. Thomas Collection at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) have come to UCL’s Institute of Archaeology for conservation. The project is allowing us to interact with the collection in new ways and to approach, explore and elicit some of the past and present meanings of the archive Thomas put together. As a result, in many cases the objects in the stores are being studied for the first time and the cobwebs are being dusted off, sometimes quite literally.

Conservation has a particular role in the [Re:]Entanglements project: not only does it ensure that the objects are stable enough to be used by anyone interacting with them, but as a distinct form of engagement, it provides intimate knowledge of the objects and can shed light on their make-up and their biography. Due to the lack of contextualising documentary evidence, museum objects often appear to be ‘mute’. But even where there is documentary evidence, the histories and narratives that have reached us provide one side – often someone’s side – of the story. Conservation can help provide a voice to the objects themselves, which may sometimes corroborate, but at other times question, the established histories associated with the objects. In doing so, conservation affords present day audiences the possibility to re-engage with the objects, whilst exploring the way in which the archive came to be both from past and contemporary perspectives.

UCL Conservation student conducting visual inspect of mask collected by N. W. Thomas for condition report
Detailed documentation is essential in conservation practice. Here a student annotates photographs of a mask collected in Ibillo in present-day Edo State, Nigeria prior to conservation treatment. Photograph: George Agbo.

By the time the project is finished more than 40 objects will have been worked on at the Institute of Archaeology’s conservation lab and at the MAA. The objects being treated vary in type and size, and are but a small part of the N. W. Thomas Collection, which includes over 3,000 objects. Some will form part of the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition due to open in Cambridge in April 2021, whilst others are being conserved because, after over a century of existence, they have become unstable even when packaged away in a museum store. The work is being carried out both by professional conservators and students, and is allowing these students to develop their skills and further their training, another affordance of the project. We are also providing running some workshops for the Art Assassins, the youth forum of the South London Gallery, which is another collaboration within the [Re:]Entanglements project.

Fish trap collected by N. W. Thomas being reconstructed in UCL Conservation Lab
A fish trap collected by N. W. Thomas in Awgbu in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria undergoing reconstruction in the UCL Conservation Lab. Made from strips of bamboo, tied with plant fibres, this fragile trap was little more than a pile of sticks prior to conservation. NWT (2) 2, MAA Z 13941. Photograph: Paul Basu.

There is a whole array of tools and techniques that we use in conservation to better understand the objects and inform our treatments. Documentation is essential, starting with any existing historical information to which we can correlate the object itself: documents, photographs, previous museum information in the form of labels or markings on the objects. Labels are interesting things: sometimes informative, sometimes deceptive and indicative of misidentification at some stage. Our conservation work on the N. W. Thomas Collection includes the preservation of labels and museum numbers marked on the object, as they have by now become part of it and of its history.

Historical labels attached to a fish trap collected by N. W. Thomas
Documentation of labels associated with the fish trap being conserved.

Visual analysis of the objects can be extremely revealing for a trained eye. We use microscopes to examine the surface of the objects, looking for evidence of damage and instability, but also for clues as to the history of the object: manufacture materials and techniques, damage and/or repairs (whether before or after collection), evidence of rituals or of use are all things we will be looking for in our work. All these tell stories and give the object a new voice. Some of the objects treated so far exhibit extensive pest damage, and microscopy has helped us find evidence of the pests themselves, which will be later used by expert entomologists to identify the species and give us a good idea of where the damage might have occurred. The insect damage in some of the objects reflects their places of origin in West Africa (termites) as well as their later history (wood boring insects that can be found in the UK).

Horned mask collected by N. W. Thomas exhibiting insect damage
Horned mask, described by Thomas as ofulu mpi, collected in Awgbu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria in 1911. Conservators use microscopes to inspect the insect damage: top-right: insect carcass; bottom-right: insect eggs. These will be sent to an entomologist for identification. NWT (2) 375, MAA Z 14231.1.

But conservators do not rely on visual inspection alone and we are trained to use most of our senses as part of our work, not just our eyes and hands. Smell, for instance, can help us identify fungal infestation, or certain materials used in the past. And by listening to the sound when we very gently tap a surface, we can ascertain the extent to which it may be hollow under the surface as a result of pest activity. One sense we are definitely not encouraged to use is taste! – not least because of the toxic materials earlier conservators may have used to treat objects.

Other techniques we use help us to identify materials whether original or introduced by repairs done in the past. Ultraviolet fluorescence, for instance, can reveal the presence of modern adhesives and materials in objects. Chemical tests can help identify binders and pigments used in their decoration. Elemental analysis with portable technology such as p-XRF (portable X ray fluorescence, which detects inorganic elements such as metals and minerals) can help us identify not just what the objects are made of, but also, for instance, if they were treated with pest treatments no longer used such as arsenic or mercury salts. And we can use Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) to identify organic compounds. In this way we were able to establish, for instance, that a white deposit on one of the masks (Z 13728) was paraffin wax. This identification helped us both clean it safely by using the right solvents, but also to speculate that the mask may have received some treatment, possibly soon after arrival at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. Paraffin wax was often used as a filler and protective coating treatment for wooden objects from the end of the 19th century and into the first half of the 20th century. In this case, our findings support documentary evidence from the museum’s Annual Reports in the years shortly after acquisition that the objects were cleaned, mended and restored.

Horned mask collected by N. W. Thomas showing parafin deposits
Mask described by Thomas a onye kulie collected in Nibo, present day Anambra State, Nigeria in 1911. Using FTIR techniques, conservators were able to identify the white deposit evident on parts of the mask as paraffin wax, likely to have been used to treat the mask at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology soon after it was accessioned. NWT (2) 428, MAA Z 13728.
Excerpt from Cambridge Report of the Antiquarian Committee, 1913
Excerpt from the Annual Report of the University of Cambridge Antiquarian Committee, 1914. The report notes that much of the museum assistant’s time ‘has been devoted to cleaning, mending and restoring’ objects collected by Thomas, many of which had been damaged in transit from Nigeria. The report also notes that Thomas himself spent a week at the museum ‘classifying and labelling his collections’. This would have been during the period of leave between his third and fourth tours.

Our work so far has also allowed us to interrogate and qualify some of the other knowledge resulting from the [Re:]Entanglements project’s collections-based research. Thomas’s correspondence, for instance, indicates that – in stark contrast to the current practice in his time – he commissioned some of the objects he collected to be made or else bought them at markets. One of the objects conserved at UCL in 2019 is an Igbo maiden spirit mask. The initial visual examination of the mask identified a number of historical repairs, including an iron sheet stabilising one of the bird figure on the proper right of the headdress, an iron staple across a crack on the proper left side of the headdress, and a plant fibre tie on the same area as the staple but further down. In the case of the iron staple and the fibre ties, they are covered with the same pigment used on the rest of the mask, suggesting they are original repairs. Checking the current condition against Thomas’s field photographs showed that the iron sheet repair securing the bird was already there when the mask was photographed by Thomas, presumably at the time of acquisition. These repairs could both be indicative of use prior to collection, in which case the mask would had had a previous life and not been simply commissioned by Thomas, or else be repairs carried out during the process of manufacture, not an uncommon occurrence. Currently we have not been able to resolve the matter of previous use in relation to this object, but nevertheless this conservation work has raised the question, allowing us to continue looking for evidence of previous use in other objects. That is one of the research questions we will be looking to find evidence for when treating other objects.

Maiden spirit mask collected by N. W. Thomas showing historical repair
Maiden spirit mask collected by N. W. Thomas showing historical repair
Maiden spirit mask described by Thomas as isi abogefi collected in either Agukwu-Nri or Nibo, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1911. Thomas also photographed the mask in the field (top right), revealing that the repair to one of the bird decorations was made prior to acquisition. A close examination of the the iron staple and fibre tie used to repair a split on the proper left of the mask shows that they are covered in the same pigment used on the rest of the mask, suggesting that the repair was done during the making of the mask. NWT (2) 390, MAA Z 13689.

To date, nine objects have received treatment, and conservation of the remaining objects is underway. In this and subsequent conservation-themed blogs we will be sharing some of the stories that are coming to light as a result of the conservation work.

As noted above, many of the objects undergoing conservation and being discussed in this series of posts will be exhibited at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology due to open in April 2021.

Nigerian String Games

Northcote Thomas photograph album showing string games, Nigeria
A page from one of the albums from N. W. Thomas’s second and third tours showing some of Thomas’s photographs of string figures and their names. (UK National Archives)

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, anthropologists were fascinated by the seeming ubiquity of the popular pastime of ‘string games‘ – the making of ‘string figures’ or ‘cat’s cradles’. As the pioneering British anthropologist, Alfred Cort Haddon wrote in 1906,

In Ethnology, nothing is too insignificant to receive attention … To the casual observer few amusements offer, at first sight, a less promising field for research than does the simple cat’s-cradle of our childhood; and, indeed, it is only when the comparative method is applied to it that we begin to discover that it, too, has a place in the culture history of man.

Haddon encountered the game during his 1888 visit to the islands of the Torres Straits (the channel between northern Australia and New Guinea). He observed that the Torres Strait string figures were much more elaborate than those he recalled from his childhood in England. He also noted that they were more often made by a single ‘player’, rather than two – and by no means was the game restricted to children. He collected examples of completed figures, which he subsequently donated to the British Museum.

String figure mounted on board collected by A. C. Haddon in the Western Torres Strait islands in 1888, representing the crayfish (kaiar). Donated to the British Museum in 1889. (British Museum Oc,89+.207)

Haddon continued to document string games when he returned to the Torres Straits in 1898 as leader of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition. With W. H. R. Rivers, he formalised a ‘method for recording string figures’ and published this in the anthropological journal Man in 1902. Rivers and Haddon stressed the need to document the various stages of making each figure, rather than merely photographing, drawing or even collecting the finished figures. They proposed a nomenclature for describing the various steps and actions involved in making string figures, and this has been adopted by many subsequent researchers.

Pages from Caroline Furness Jayne’s 1906 book, String Figures: A Study of Cat’s-Cradle in Many Lands, showing the method for recording string games. Haddon wrote an ‘ethnological introduction’ to the volume.

During his 1910-11 anthropological survey in Southern Nigeria, which focused on the Igbo-speaking people of what was then Awka District (more or less present-day Anambra State), Northcote Thomas took two series of photographs of string games. He recorded ten string figures in Aguwku Nri and three in Ebenebe. These are among the earliest photographs of African string figures. Thomas did not write about string games in his reports or other publications, and no field-notes survive from this tour, so we do not know if he documented the games according to Rivers and Haddon’s methodology, or whether he simply took photographs of the finished figures.

Philip Noble, who co-founded the International String Figure Association in 1978, has made a study of Thomas’s photographs of Nigerian string figures. In an article ‘Some Nigerian String Figures’ published in the Bulletin of the International String Figure Association in 2013, Noble reconstructs the methods by which the figures were made. The article is republished, with kind permission of Philip Noble and the Bulletin’s editor, at the end of this blog. Philip Noble has also very kindly created a series of short videos for [Re:]Entanglements in which he demonstrates how each of the figures was made.

Thomas recorded the Igbo name for each of the figures. These would have been recorded in the local Igbo dialects, and Thomas’s phonetic spelling of Igbo words is idiosyncratic. In the following sections, we include Thomas’s English translation of the names, his rendering of the Igbo names, and also a translation of the names from English into standard Central Igbo, courtesy of Yvonne Mbanefo. Northcote Thomas records the Igbo word for string games generically as akpukbaỌkpụkpa simply means ‘to make or create something by hand’. Igbo-speaking friends and correspondents have told us of other words for string games: Ikpo ubo (‘to play strings’), Gadas, Atụmankasa. Some of these may refer to particular figures rather than the game more generically. As always, we welcome any feedback on these string games and their names – please leave a comment.

1. Trap to catch thief

N. W. Thomas: Eta nanwani ori; Central Igbo: Ọnya onye ori

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2836
‘Trap to catch thief’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2836; RAI 400.16249)

Philip Noble notes: This is figure is known throughout West Africa, and often has the same name. In most locations a second player inserts a hand or finger into the lower trapezoid. When the first player releases his thumb loops and extends the figure, the second player is caught in a noose.

2. Basket spirits use to carry person

N. W. Thomas: Okba mwo ji ebu mwadu; Central Igbo: Nkata mmụọ ji ebu mmadụ

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2836a
‘Basket spirits use to carry person’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2836; RAI 400.16250)

Philip Noble notes: This figure is also known in Congo, Sudan and Equatorial Guinea. In Nigeria the design represents a palanquin (sedan chair) for transporting a chief. In its most primitive form a palanquin consists of a basket suspended between two parallel poles. The inclusion of the word ‘spirits’ in the title may refer to an ancient custom, recorded by P. A. Talbot, in which a large palanquin borne on the shoulders of six men, was used to transport a ‘spirit’ during a funeral ceremony.

3. Big piece of yam

N. W. Thomas: Ibeji okotoko; Central Igbo: Nnukwu ibe ji

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2838a
‘Big piece of yam’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2838a; RAI 400.16252)

Philip Noble notes: Identical or closely related figures are known throughout Africa. Nigerian yams belong to the genus Dioscorea. Prior to cooking, yams are peeled and cut into cubes, which are represented by diamonds in the corresponding string figure.

(See video below.)

4. Child of monkey eats and tears its tail

N. W. Thomas: Nwenwelie ora odo; Central Igbo: Nwa enwe rie ọ dọkaa ọdụ

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2838
‘Child of monkey eats and tears its tail’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2838; RAI 400.16251)

Philip Noble notes: The construction is similar to a figure called ‘A Pair of Scissors’, published by Kathleen Haddon and Hilda Treleaven in The Nigerian Field in 1936, and another called ‘Aeroplane’ recorded by George Cansdale in Ghana.

5. Corpse and cloth

N. W. Thomas: Ozu nakwa; Central Igbo: Ozu na akwa

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2840
‘Corpse and cloth’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2840; RAI 400.16253)

6. Big belly of old woman

N. W. Thomas: Okulu agadin waiyi; Central Igbo: Nnukwu afọ agadi nwaanyị

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2840a
‘Big belly of old woman’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2840a; RAI 400.16254)

Philip Noble notes: This figure is identical to No. 19 in George Cansdale’s collection, ‘Ghana String Figures’, published in The Nigerian Field in 1993, which has the name ‘When this animal went to fetch water, the sun came down’. In the Nigerian counterpart the loose hanging loop represents the sagging belly of an old woman.

7. Bull with long horn

N. W. Thomas: Okefi mpi agi liga; Central Igbo: Okeehi ogologo mpi

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2842a
‘Bull with long horn’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2842a; RAI 400.16256)

Philip Noble notes: The design represents a bull’s triangular face and his two horns. This figure is the same as one called ‘Bat’ published by Kathleen Haddon and Hilda Treleaven in The Nigerian Field in 1936. It was also recorded by the geologist, John Parkinson, in Yoruba-speaking areas of Southern Nigeria and published in 1906, also named ‘a bat’.

Excerpt from John Parkinson’s article, ‘Yoruba String Figures’, published in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute in 1906, with figure of the ‘bat’ string figure.

8. Net for load

N. W. Thomas: Ozo anele; Central Igbo: Ubu ibu

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2842
‘Net for load’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2842; RAI 400.16255)

Philip Noble notes: This figure is widely distributed in Africa, where it often represents a ‘net’. It is the same as one called ‘A Bridge’ published by Kathleen Haddon and Hilda Treleaven in The Nigerian Field in 1936.

9. Mask for ‘juju’

N. W. Thomas: Oga; Central Igbo: Ihu mmanwụ ọgwụ

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2844a
‘Mask for “Juju”‘ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2844a; RAI 400.16258)

Philip Noble notes: The figure is widely distributed in Africa. It is the same as that published by John Parkinson in 1906 under the name ‘Moving Figure’.

10. Fowl’s anus

N. W. Thomas: Ubwadiye; Central Igbo: Ike ọkụkọ

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2844
‘Fowl’s anus’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2844; RAI 400.16257)

11. Rope on back

N. W. Thomas: Bokulei; Central Igbo: Ụdọ n’azụ

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2846
‘Rope on back’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2846; RAI 400.16259)

Philip Noble notes: The central string represents a rope, presumably on the back of a person who is face down. The figure is identical to that published by Kathleen Haddon and Hilda Treleaven in The Nigerian Field in 1936 under the name ‘Dead Man Lying on a Bed’.

12. Trap

N. W. Thomas: Ibudu; Central Igbo: Ọnya

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 3499
‘Trap’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Ebenebe, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 3499; RAI 400.20057)

Philip Noble notes: This figure is the same as ‘Bongo Skin’ and ‘Buffalo Skin (Pegged Out)’ respectively published by George Cansdale in 1993 and C. L. T. Griffith in 1925, both recorded in Ghana/Gold Coast.

It would be interesting to find out if such string games are still played in Agukwu Nri and Ebenebe, and, if so, whether these figures and names are still known. We will try to investigate this in our fieldwork.

Written instructions for recreating each of the string figures photographed by Thomas can be found in Philip Noble’s full article ‘Some Nigerian String Figures’, which can be downloaded from the link below. (Please note that there are some discrepancies between the names of string figures used in this blog and those in Philip Noble’s article. I have used the captions of the photographs in Thomas’s albums as the most reliable guide, but, since some of the photographs share the same negative number, it is possible that Thomas got these muddled up himself!) Many thanks to Philip Noble and Mark Sherman for permission to draw upon and republish Philip’s article, to Philip for producing the excellent demonstration videos, and to Yvonne Mbanefo, Emeka Maduewesi and Ayodeji Ayimoro for their help with Igbo names for string games.

Faces|Voices – confronting the photographic archive

Looking through the photographic archives of Northcote Thomas’s early twentieth-century anthropological surveys of Nigeria and Sierra Leone, one gazes upon thousands of faces. Faces of men, women and children, many photographed against a canvas backdrop; all of them silent. What were they thinking as they were being photographed by this Government Anthropologist, perhaps with a number card held above their heads? Was the encounter with this pith-helmeted white man, with his entourage of carriers and boxes full of strange equipment, an unpleasant one, or an amusing distraction from everyday chores? What can we see in the faces Thomas photographed? What can we read in their expressions?

In Faces|Voices, a short film we have made as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we invited participants to reflect upon some of the faces captured in Thomas’s photographic portraits and to comment more generally on the significance of these archival images. Adding their voices to the mute photographs, we find that the same portrait may invite quite different ‘readings’. Where one may see coercion, another might detect boredom. The crushing experience of colonialism may be found in one subject’s expression; optimism and resilience in another’s. Perhaps most surprising is the sympathetic view – even identification with – the face of the Government Anthropologist himself.

The film complicates any simple reading of the colonial archive. Even ‘physical type’ photographs, intended to identify and classify people into different racial or tribal categories, and which seemingly epitomize the violences of colonial ideologies, become ambiguous on closer inspection.

What do you read in these faces? Please make your voice heard by adding a comment.

Faces|Voices was made in collaboration with The Light Surgeons as a pilot for a video installation for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition planned for 2020. See also our earlier blog entry about the making of the film. Many thanks to our participants: Ebony Francis, Robert Kelechi Isiodu, Kofi Mawuli Klu, Yvonne Mbanefo and Esther Stanford-Xose.

N. W. Thomas – an accidental artist?

N. W. Thomas, Still Life, Shrine of Olukun, Benin City. NWT 144. MAA P.28134.
N. W. Thomas, Shrine of Olukun, Benin City, 1909. NWT 144. MAA P.28134.

Along with the sound archives and collections of artefacts, the photographic legacy of N. W. Thomas’s anthropological surveys in West Africa provide a remarkable record of life in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the early twentieth century. As part of a ‘scientific’ endeavour, they were intended primarily as a form of ethnographic documentation and also constituted ‘data’ in themselves – particularly with regard to physical type photography. As part of a government-sponsored project, their entanglement in colonial power relations and racial representation/categorisation is unavoidable. This political context must be the primary lens through which we approach these images and practices.

Working through this vast archive of photographs, however, one is also struck occasionally by the aesthetic qualities of the images. This extends to both portraiture – which, in many cases, complicates our reading of these as ‘physical type’ photographs (this will be the subject of a future blog) – and what we might call ‘still life’ photographs. Indeed, as the examples included here show, Thomas’s photographs of material culture or architectural details are sometimes strongly redolent of the early still-life photography of Fox Talbot or Daguerre . This includes photographs of what appear to be ‘found scenes’ as well as compositions in which objects have been arranged purposefully for the camera. (Compare, for example, with Fox Talbot’s ‘The Open Door‘ and Daguerre’s ‘Fossils and Shells‘.)

N. W. Thomas, Still Life, Instruments for marking body and medicines, Benin City. NWT 49. MAA P.28070.
N. W. Thomas, Instruments for marking body and medicines, Benin City, 1909. NWT 49. MAA P.28070.

This reminds us of a dual characteristic of photography that has been present throughout the history of the medium – that photography has been regarded as both a medium for the objective documentation of reality, independent of the photographer’s ‘artistry’, and as a medium of subjective artistic expression akin to painting or drawing. In the context of Thomas’s anthropological survey photography, a further question is raised regarding whether we may appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the photographs, while being mindful (and critical) of the racial/colonial politics in which they are entangled?

N. W. Thomas, Still Life, Shrine, Fugar. NWT 1056. MAA P.29135.
N. W. Thomas, Shrine, Fugar, 1909. NWT 1056. MAA P.29135.

Peripheral presences: N. W. Thomas’s Field Assistants

Assistant with umbrella. Peripheral presences in N. W. Thomas's anthropological photography. NWT 194b, 195a, 196a and 200a.
One of N. W. Thomas’s assistants, probably John Osakbo, as a peripheral presence at the edge of the frame in a series of physical type portraits photographed in Benin City in 1909. NWT 194b, 195a, 196a, 200a.

The image of the anthropologist as a heroic, lone fieldworker, battling through adversity in order to single-handedly document disappearing customs and rituals is a tenacious myth. Some anthropologists intentionally portrayed themselves in such terms. Malinowski‘s 1922 monograph, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, famously begins with the lines: ‘Imagine yourself, suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach close to a native village, while the launch or dinghy which brought you sails away out of sight’. In fact, we know that anthropological fieldwork is – and always has been – a highly collaborative endeavour. The important role of fieldwork collaborators – including fixers, brokers, assistants, interpreters and other participants – has, however, often gone unacknowledged. A notable exception was Franz Boas, who acknowledged his debt to his Tlingit-speaking assistant, George Hunt, who collected much of the data on which Boas’s publications were based.

N. W. Thomas was undoubtedly an energetic fieldworker, travelling extensively in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the course of some 55-months of anthropological survey work between 1909 and 1915. While Thomas was the sole author of the various reports and publications that resulted from this research, and is credited with assembling the thousands of photographs and sound recordings, and extensive collections of artefacts, botanical specimens and linguistic materials that are the legacy of these surveys, it is clear that this could not be the work of just one man. But who accompanied Thomas on his travels? How many assistants did he have? What roles did they play? One has to look hard to find a trace of such collaborators in the archives of Thomas’s surveys – but they can occasionally be glimpsed as peripheral presences.

This peripheral presence is most literally manifest when Thomas’s assistants appear at the edge of the photographic frame, holding a number board, supporting the photographic background sheet, or diffusing the sunlight with an umbrella. Many of Thomas’s photographic negatives are loosely framed, allowing peripheral detail to creep into the picture. The intention would have been to crop these images prior to publication, removing the traces of their co-production. As an experiment, such photographs can be differently cropped, placing the peripheral presences in the centre of the frame.

Peripheral presences. Details of N. W. Thomas photographs NWT 427 and 959.
Placing the peripheral presence in the centre of the frame. Again, probably John Osakbo, described by N. W. Thomas as ‘the most capable boy I ever saw’. NWT 427, 959.

Represencing Thomas’s fieldwork collaborators also entails recognising their trace elsewhere in the archive. In negative number NWT 261, a photograph of a group of Hausa musicians and dancers taken in Benin City in 1909, an assistant can be seen on the verandah making notes in what appears to be Thomas’s photographic register. These register books survive in the archives of the Royal Anthropological Institute and, indeed, the handwriting on these pages is not Thomas’s. Has the act of writing this very register entry been captured at the periphery of the frame?

Peripheral presences in N. W. Thomas's anthropological photography. NWT 261.
Left: A group of Hausa musicians and dancers, photographed in Benin City in 1909. Right: Detail showing figure on the verandah at the right edge of the frame, and of the photographic register entry he appears to be writing. NWT 261.

Within the photographic archive of the anthropological surveys, there are just five photographs of N. W. Thomas himself. These were likely taken by Thomas’s field assistants. In one intriguing pair of photographs, taken at the same location, it appears that Thomas and one of his assistants – probably Corporal Nimahan (see below) – have taken it in turns to photograph one another. This raises the question as to how many other photographs in the archive might have been taken by Thomas’s assistants rather than by Thomas himself.

N. W. Thomas (left) and an unnamed field assistant, possibly Corporal Nimahan, 1909.
Left: N. W. Thomas, possibly photographed by Thomas’s interpreter, Corporal Nimahan. Right: Unnamed assistant wearing corporal’s stripes (possibly Corporal Nimahan), probably photographed by N. W. Thomas. RAI 400.38267, 400.38292.

There appears to be only one entry in Thomas’s photographic register books in which it is noted that an assistant has taken a photograph. Thus photograph NWT 283 is described as ‘Burial of Legema, 26.3.09’. Evidently a sequence of four photographs was taken under this same number: 3 and 4 ‘by N.W.T.’, 5 and 6 ‘by John’. In fact we know a little more about ‘John’ compared with Thomas’s other assistants. This was evidently John Osakbo of Benin City. In a surviving letter from Thomas to the Colonial Office, sent from London in May 1910 after the completion of his first anthropological tour, Thomas requests that this assistant be paid a ‘retaining fee’ of £1 a month until his return to West Africa. Thomas describes John Osakbo as ‘the most capable boy I ever saw’, but notes that he was illiterate, and that the retaining fee should be paid on condition that he learn to read and write, and that he should also ‘receive training in photography’. It appears that Thomas’s request was granted. Thomas also recorded a phonograph of John Osakbo playing a song on a high-pitched woodwind instrument. Thomas’ voice can be heard at the start of the wax cylinder recording (NWT 16; BL C51/2164), ‘…song played by my servant, John, February 10th, 1909’.

 

It is likely that the number of individuals who accompanied N. W. Thomas on his travels varied from tour to tour. He travelled with camp equipment as well as photographic kit, phonograph and much else and would therefore have needed carriers. He seems to have travelled on foot, on bicycle and by hammock. In a letter to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, written in 1928, recalling the collecting of vernacular names of plant species in Sierra Leone, Thomas mentions that Temne and Mende plant names were obtained from his hammock boys, and that they had been recruited in Freetown. Thomas relied on the assistance of interpreters, not only in his day-to-day interactions with people in the communities he visited, but also in compiling vocabularies and other linguistic data. In the preface to Part II of Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, concerned with linguistics, Thomas provides a list of the interpreters with whom he worked during his first tour and explaining the methodology he employed. Their names are: Erumese (Edo/Benin City), Nimahan (Kukuruku and Ishan), Osidora (Agbede and Kukuruku), Ogbedo (Edo/Benin City), James Smart (Sobo), George, Oganna and Isuma (Kukuruku). Nimahan was a corporal of the Southern Nigeria Police, and appears to have acted as both official interpreter and as representative of colonial authority. In Part III of Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone: Timne Grammar and Stories, Thomas notes that the first twelve stories published in the book ‘were recorded from the mouth of various members of my staff’.

In conclusion, by attending to their peripheral presences in the archive, it is clear that N. W. Thomas was not a lone fieldwork, but was accompanied and assisted in his anthropological survey work by an entourage of collaborators. While further work needs to be done to identify both the names and full range of activities they undertook, it is evident that their roles were fluid (‘hammock boys’, for example, provided ethnographic and linguistic information and did not simply transport the anthropologist on his itinerations). These collaborators were not peripheral to the anthropological project, but were in fact central to the endeavour. Hopefully, through the [Re:]Entanglements project, we will be able to identify more of N. W. Thomas’s Nigerian and Sierra Leonean collaborators, and correct the erroneous impression that Thomas was single-handedly responsible for assembling this remarkable ethnographic archive.

Photographic Affordances exhibition

Photographic Affordances exhibition, Royal Anthropological Institute, January 2018.

Marking the launch of the [Re:]Entanglements project, the first of a number of exhibitions related to the project has been installed at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. The exhibition, entitled ‘Photographic Affordances’, includes a selection of fine digital prints from scans of N. W. Thomas’s original glass plate negatives that are held in the Royal Anthropological Institute’s collections.

Photographs made during Thomas’s four anthropological surveys in West Africa between 1909 and 1915 are dispersed in various institutions, including over 5,000 glass plate negatives held at the Royal Anthropological Institute and several thousand loose prints in the collections of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Approximately half the photographs made in Thomas’s three Nigerian tours were compiled in albums. Triplicate sets of these albums were made: one was originally kept in the Colonial Office Library in London, another was sent to the Colonial Secretariat in Lagos, while the third was intended for scholarly reference and originally deposited at the Horniman Museum in London. Today complete sets of the albums can be found in the UK’s National Archives and the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, while, to date, we have located one album at the National Museum in Lagos. Hopefully, in the course of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we will be able to locate the remaining albums in Lagos.

Photographic Affordances exhibition, Royal Anthropological Institute, January 2018.
Selection of N. W. Thomas’s physical type photographs on display at the Photographic Affordances exhibition.

Many of the prints on display at the Royal Anthropological Institute are so-called ‘physical type’ portraits. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century anthropological orthodoxy imagined the world’s population to be divided into distinct races and tribes, each with its own language, material culture and cultural traditions. It was also believed that people belonging to these groups were physically different from one another. Anthropologists of the era, including N. W. Thomas, expended a great deal of effort in mapping these different groups and their physical characteristics. One technique for doing this was through making photographic portraits of people – usually full face and profile – which could then be compared. The same techniques were used in the Ethnographic Survey of the British Isles, for example, but this kind of photography is often associated with colonial attitudes, which seemingly reduced people to objects that could be measured, categorized and compared.

N. W. Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part IV, PLate 18. Woman of Isele Asaba.
Plate XVII, N. W. Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part IV, 1914. Physical type photograph captioned ‘Woman of Islele Asaba’.

When physical type photographs were published in Thomas’s Anthropological Reports, the captions followed this objectifying anthropological practice. Thus, people were reduced to ‘types’ and the photographs were accompanied by labels such as ‘Man of Awka’, ‘Man of Mbwaku’ and ‘Woman of Isele Asaba’. In keeping with the supposedly ‘scientific’ genre of the photographs, the subjects do not smile. They seem to manifest the colonial violence we expect of them. By examining Thomas’s photographic negatives, however, a different impression emerges: Thomas was usually careful to note the names of those he photographed and, among the unpublished outtakes, we find people smiling and even giggling. This challenges our expectations and suggests there was a more personal relationship between the anthropologist and the person being photographed.

N. W. Thomas physical type photographs, comparing negative number RAI 400.38045 and 400.38046.
Scans of N. W. Thomas glate plate negatives, comparing two ‘takes’ of NWT 6105. The sitter’s name is recorded as Laiah. In the blurred ‘outtake’ on the left Laiah appears to be giggling. (RAI 400.38046, RAI 400.38045)

Despite the large number of physical type photographs made by Thomas while he was engaged as Government Anthropologist, the colonial authorities themselves had little interest in them, regarding them as being of ‘purely scientific interest’ and of no value in colonial governance. Thomas himself seems to have pursued this kind of photographic practice more out of a sense that this was what a professional anthropologist was expected to do, rather than a conviction in its scientific import.

The physical type photographs displayed in the Royal Anthropological Institute exhibition raise difficult questions, particularly for an institution founded in the 1870s and also entangled in histories of colonialism and ‘racial science’. Some of the faces smile, but others gaze into Thomas’s camera lens defiantly. They return the colonial anthropologist’s gaze, and now, gazing down from the Institute’s meeting room walls after 100 years hidden away in storage, they confront and unsettle representatives of the discipline today.

The exhibition is not open to the public, but please contact us at info@re-entanglements.net if you are interested in seeing it.

Photographic Affordances exhibition, Royal Anthropological Institute, January 2018
Photographic Affordances exhibition, Royal Anthropological Institute.

‘Fire Brigade’, Benin City, January 1909

'Fire brigade', Benin City, January 1909. Photograph by N. W. Thomas.

Photography played an important part of N. W. Thomas’s work as Government Anthropologist in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. During the 55 months between 1909 and 1915 that he spent conducting fieldwork, Thomas took approximately 7,000 photographs on quarter plate glass negatives. Although these photographs were made as part of an anthropological survey, today they form a remarkable historical record of the localities in which he worked.

The first surviving photograph from Thomas’s anthropological surveys, made soon after he arrived in Southern Nigeria in January 1909, shows a chain of three men passing pots of water between them to put out a house fire in Benin City. Thomas captions the photograph ‘fire brigade’ in his photographic register. It is one of a sequence of shots of a house fire and its aftermath.

Thomas individually numbered each of his photographs and subsequently categorized them under geographical and thematic headings, such as Topography, Houses, Daily Life, Decorative Art, Technology, Ceremonies and so forth. He also kept a photographic register, in which he – or an assistant – made a brief note about each photograph as they were taken.

Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1912, Anthropological Photographs
Excerpt from the Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1912. This shows a report of the Association’s Committee on Anthropological Photographs, including a catalogue of the photographs from N. W. Thomas’s first tour, classified by location and theme.

Over the course of the [Re:]Entanglements project we will be researching this unique photographic archive alongside Thomas’s sound recordings and artefact collections and will regularly post about our discoveries. Please share these posts and add any comments you may have.

A Government Anthropologist sets sail for Lagos

S. S. Burutu, Elder Dempster Line

On this day, January 9th, in 1909, the Government Anthropologist, N. W. Thomas, set sail on the S. S. Burutu from Liverpool. Travelling on this Elder Dempster & Co. steam ship, he was bound for Lagos and his first experience of anthropological fieldwork in West Africa.

It was a more a matter of chance than design that N. W. Thomas’s became the first Government Anthropologist to be appointed by the British Colonial Office. A few years earlier, in 1905, the Chief Magistrate of the Gambia, A. D. Russell, had proposed distributing a questionnaire to colonial administrators in Britain’s West African territories in order to collect information about the ‘customary laws’ of local populations. It was thought that this information would be useful for those colonial officials who were responsible for ‘administering justice’ in the context of indirect rule. The proposal was adopted and over the following couple of years a large amount of material amassed at the Colonial Office.

Report on Central Province, Southern Nigeria, tribal marks
Excerpt from one of the reports compiled by colonial officers on West African customs and laws reviewed by N. W. Thomas. These pages are concerned with ‘tribal marks’ in the Central Province of Southern Nigeria. RAI Manuscripts & Archives.

At the same time, the academic discipline of anthropology was fast establishing itself in Britain. The first qualification in the subject was, for example, introduced at Oxford in 1906, and a first generation of professional anthropologists had been lobbying government for the establishment of an Imperial Bureau of Anthropology modelled on that already existing in the USA. In 1908, when the Colonial Office began considering publication of the information about customary laws in West Africa, it was decided that the job of editing the material should be entrusted to an anthropologist. On the recommendation of E. B. Tylor, N. W. Thomas was approached to take on this task.

Thomas’s review of the questionnaire material was, however, damning. He reported that the quality of the information gathered was extremely variable, and found fault both in the design of the questionnaire and in the methods used in gathering the data. Such research, he argued, needed to be undertaken by an expert ‘familiar with modern anthropological methods’ rather than by colonial administrators – adding that, if so desired, he would be prepared to take on such a task. Thomas’s report shook the confidence of officials in the Colonial Office, and they took Thomas’s recommendations seriously. Following further consultation with senior anthropologists, including J. G. Frazer and C. H. Read, Thomas was duly engaged to carry out ‘an investigation of an experimental character into native law, custom, &c.’ in West Africa.

Of the governors of Britain’s West African territories, it was Sir Walter Egerton, Governor of the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, who was most receptive to the idea of supporting the initiative to engage a professional anthropologist. It was thus agreed that the first ‘experimental’ anthropological survey should take place in Southern Nigeria. If the survey proved successful, it was agreed that the initiative would be extended, perhaps to other territories. It was important to note that Thomas was given little direct instruction either from the Colonial Office or colonial government in Southern Nigeria. Rather than focusing narrowly on specific problems or issues, Thomas embarked on a general ethnographic survey, following the guidance set out in the methodological handbook, Notes and Queries in Anthropology.

It is likely that Thomas chose Southern Nigeria’s Central Province as the focus of his initial tour due to his acquaintance with R. E. Dennett and H. N. Thompson, respectively the Deputy Conservator and Conservator of Forests in Southern Nigeria, who were ordinarily based in Benin City, the provincial headquarters. The companionship of Dennett and Thompson would, no doubt, have eased Thomas’s entry into what were, for him, the unknown worlds of both West Africa and the Colonial Service. Indeed, when his appointment was confirmed, Thomas requested that his departure for Southern Nigeria might be delayed until January 1909, so that he might travel out with Thompson, who had been on leave in England. The passenger list on the S. S. Burutu thus lists both N. W. Thomas and H. N. Thompson among its first class customers.

Passenger List of the S. S. Burutu, departing from Liverpool, 9th January 1909.
Passenger List of the S. S. Burutu, departing from Liverpool, 9th January 1909. Highlighted are the names of H. N. Thompson and N. W. Thomas, both bound for Lagos.

Further details about N. W. Thomas’s biography and career can be found in the article ‘N. W. Thomas and colonial anthropology in British West Africa: reappraising a cautionary tale’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22: 84-107.

Who was N. W. Thomas?

Northcote Whitridge Thomas (1868-1936) was the first official government anthropologist to be appointed by the British Colonial Office. He was born in the English market town of Oswestry, near the Welsh border. Although his mother and father lived until 1907 and 1914 respectively, as a child Thomas was informally adopted by his mother’s elder sister, Katherine Toller, and her husband, John Askew Roberts. Roberts was a successful businessman, who ran the local Oswestry Advertizer newspaper and took a keen interest in archaeology and local folklore, the possible source of Thomas’s interest in folklore studies and ethnology.

N. W. Thomas in c.1887
N. W. Thomas in c.1887 while studying at Cambridge. Courtesy of Norman Home.

Thomas studied History at Trinity College, Cambridge between 1887 and 1891, and was awarded an MA in 1894. The famous anthropologist, folklorist and author of The Golden Bough, J. G. Frazer, was a Fellow of Trinity College. Thomas certainly became an acquaintance of Frazer in later life, though we do not know whether he fell under his influence while studying at Cambridge. By 1894 it was clear that Thomas had decided to pursue folklore and ethnological studies. Since no university in Britain yet taught these subjects, Thomas went to study ‘primitive religion’ at the École pratique des hautes études in Paris under Léon Marillier. Among his near contemporaries were Marcel Mauss and Arnold van Gennep. Thomas’s research interests at this time focused on European folk stories and superstitions relating to animals. Influenced by E. B. Tylor, he speculated that these represented the vestiges of totemism. In 1897 he submitted a thesis entitled ‘La Survivance du culte des animaux au Pays de Galles’ and was awarded a diploma. Between 1897 and 1900 Thomas lived in Kiel, northern Germany, where he continued to study European folklore as well as modern European languages.

Thomas returned to Britain in 1900 and was appointed as Assistant Secretary and Librarian at the Anthropological Institute. The period until his appointment as Government Anthropologist in 1909 was an intensely busy one for Thomas, and saw him become an established figure in anthropological circles. He served on the Councils of the Folklore Society and (Royal) Anthropological Institute, and wrote or edited several books, including volumes of the County Folklore series, Natives of Australia (1906), Kinship Organisation and Group Marriage in Australia (1906), Anthropological Essays presented to Edward Burnett Tylor (1907, with R. R. Marett and W. H. R. Rivers) and Women of All Nations (1908, with T. A. Joyce). Thomas intended to conduct anthropological fieldwork in Australia at this time, but was unable to raise the funds.

Title pages of N. W. Thomas books
Title pages of three of N. W. Thomas’s books, published prior to his appointment as Government Anthropologist in West Africa.

Thomas’s interests in West Africa seem to have arisen through his acquaintance with R. E. Dennett, who had been a trader in the Congo before being appointed as Deputy Chief Conservator of Forests in Southern Nigeria. Dennett was also an amateur ethnologist and collector, who published articles in scholarly journals. Thomas edited the manuscript of Dennett’s 1906 book, At the Back of the Black Man’s Mind: Or Notes on the Kingly Office in West Africa. This was a comparative study of Vili and Bini customs and belief. Indicative of his shifting interest towards Africa, Thomas also published an article on ‘The Market in African Law and Custom’ in 1908. Like his book-length studies of Australian kinship and totemism, this was a typical work of ‘armchair anthropology’, with data drawn from a wide variety of sources and not based on his own field research.

The opportunity to conduct anthropological fieldwork of his own would come in 1909, with Thomas’s appointment as Government Anthropologist in Southern Nigeria. But that will be the subject of another post.

Further details about N. W. Thomas’s biography and career can be found in the article ‘N. W. Thomas and colonial anthropology in British West Africa: reappraising a cautionary tale’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22: 84-107.